My parents were my earliest role models for a work ethic, which is a very good thing because, while they obviously enjoyed my consistent reply to, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (“A doctor!”), they were fairly short on experience from which to give me actual career advice. I was the first and only member of our immediate household to go to college. My career has been a matter of fate, divine intervention, trial-and-error, bad decisions, dumb-luck good choices, and a philosophy I picked up along the way.
Born in 1909, Jack Wilson and Shirley Kalter made a comfortable middle-class home for the household family that included my sister, Phyllis (6 years older) and our maternal grandparents, the Kalters (Pop-pop Jacob, from Budapest, and Maman Anne, from Vienna). Like many other depression-era survivors, they became frugal money-managers. They always drove a relatively new car, managed to give us wonderful, summer-long boarding-house vacations in Atlantic City, and eventually could afford to move us to a luxury high-rise apartment in center-city, from which dad could then walk to work.
|Atlantic City 1950|
During the last 65 years of his life, my father held two jobs. They were very similar functions and responsibilities (be sure the customers get what they ordered, on time) in the same industry (the design and manufacture of high-end men’s clothing), but for two different companies. And the last job carried an impressive title. He had grown with the company in that job, and way before computers, had designed and organized all of the paper-and-pencil systems for order fulfillment and inventory management & movement that kept his side of this international business running smoothly; no customer or employee complaints; his employees loved him. He was the only one who knew all of the intricacies of the system he had built and acclimated to slowly over time. When he finally called it quits, it took five people to replace him.
Dad’s career advice: “You have to have stick-to-it-ive-ness!” He certainly had it and lived it. He quit school in the third grade to go to work to help support his parents, brothers and sisters. The success he achieved later in life was the result of being a self-made man. At age 8, he was selling newspapers on street corners in the business district of Philadelphia, learning from his fellow street-hawkers to cut the fingers off of his gloves during the cold winter days to be able to make change faster. At the end of the day, if he could bring home fifteen cents for his mother, that was a very good day. I was touched by his stories of poverty and hard work. But stick-to-it-ive-ness did not stick to me the way they expected.
Dad’s formula for a balanced life was expressed in his often repeating a proverb from “the old country”, Russia, where his father was born, “If a man has only two pennies, with one penny he should buy bread and with the other penny he should buy flowers because the soul needs nourishment.” He also observed and passed on to us in an advisory tone, “It doesn’t matter how many talents and assets you have in life, or how hard you work, you need a little bit of luck, too.” Now, those thoughts stuck with me.
As the family breadwinner, he rose daily at 5 a.m., shaved, had a breakfast of coffee, toast and six prunes, which he stewed himself weekly. Then he rode two trolleys and the “El” (the elevated train & subway part of public transportation) to work, and returned promptly by 6 p.m. via the same route. The postal creed must have been learned from my dad: neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor dark of night, nor that he suffered from a progressive nerve deafness, could keep him from getting to and doing his job.
Mom, who looks quite the flapper in the early part of the family album, was runner-up harmonica champion of Philadelphia circa 1923. She invariably reminded us of this achievement every time she played harmonica for us; we always accepted her claim but I don’t recall ever seeing any substantiating evidence. At about the same age (14) I was the yo-yo champion of our section of West Philadelphia, winning lots of trophies, a vest and sew-on patches, but there’s no existing proof of that, either, so it’s easy for me to say let’s just let the claims stand as fact.
My mother, too, had a phenomenal work ethic. Smart and musically talented, and very outgoing, marriage at 18 and raising a family thwarted her dreams of going to Normal School (that was the name given to the teacher’s college). When her kids were old enough, she went to work as a bookkeeper. Also a staunch proponent of stick-to-it-ive-ness, she held that job with one company, where they loved her. In her day she would have been lauded as a steady-Eddie (highly reliable) and a crackerjack (top-notch) employee. Her untimely death of ovarian cancer at 52, was a shock that threw all of us for a loop.
Having lost the only love of his life, my dad went into a dark, grievous depression that lasted more than two years. Years later he told that he had been so far down that he thought he would never come out of it, would never see a happy moment again. He said that it was impossible for him to believe his friends who told him, “Jack, this too shall pass.” His salvation was work; keeping his routine and getting to the office every day. “And one day,” he told me, “I realized I was not as sad as the day before. It was passing.” I know from watching him sob at my mother’s grave every time we visited it for the next forty years, that he never completely got over losing her. And, why should he?
|Dad c. 1951 with a high-tech hearing aid built into his eyeglasses|
With these as my primary role models, and no one at home to give me guidance, and with a few helpful platitudes and here-and-there advice, I have managed to stumble into a career. As Danny Kaye recounts his career path as “The Court Jester”:
But First, Hauling Ashes
Confucius said, “Choose an occupation that you love and you may never have to work a day in your life.” I wonder how long it took him to figure that out. Historically, boys, girls, and other lowly grunts have started their working lives by “hauling ashes”. Now, in today’s nomenclature, getting one’s ashes hauled refers to relief from sexual tension, but back in the day actually doing a job called hauling ashes meant doing the most menial of jobs, for a pittance, often as the first work anybody would pay you to do, and part of the rites of passage to eventually being worth real wages. In today’s world it often means working in fast food, asking “Would you like fries with that?” Well, I don’t think I chose my occupation so much as tip-toed staggeringly into it; I don’t recall that there was any ceremonial rite-of-passage about it; and, I’m still not entirely sure what “it” is.
My earliest jobs, around age 14, were working for a friend of my father’s who had a connection with the concessions at various events in Philadelphia: at Convention Hall, climbing up and down the stand hawking “Ice cold orange drinks! Who’ll have an orange drink?” at the Warriors (later the Seventy-Sixers) basketball games. Also, hawking pennants and souvenirs at the Army/Navy game, hot chocolate at the Mummer’s parade (too damn cold if you ask me), selling hot-dogs at the vacation show, the home & garden show, the sportsman’s show, and the dog show. No puns and no buns. I was told to bring bread from home and then I could use it to eat all the hot dogs I could without being charged for them because we were accountable to turn in cash only for the buns used; they could easily count the buns but the hot dogs were by weight, not actually counted. These jobs provided good spending money (paid in often-soggy cash) for a kid, and my first lessons in beating the system, putting one over on the man. I was hauling ashes.
I Hate School!
From age 10 through my teens I demonstrated what can only be called a variegated curiosity. I’m sure it wasn’t any actual deficit of attention span, but it caused my parents worry and obvious disappointment as they repeated their refrain of stick-to-it-ive-ness. I am sure they gave up all hope that I had any. Many passions that blossomed for me during those formative years. Some lit up and mesmerized me like shooting stars but burned out quickly; others have lasted a lifetime. Some of my varied interests included: tap dancing, radio serials and quiz shows; Erector(tm) sets, chemistry sets, orange crate skaters, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, bicycles, football, baseball, magic, stage make-up, yo-yos, Tom Lehrer, and guitar (folk singing); Oscar Brand’s bawdy songs; American Bandstand; girls.
|Cub Scout 1950|
Biology at Sayre Junior High School was a disaster for me. The phyla of flora and fauna were a mystery to me. I never admitted it to my parents, but all of my plans for medical school vanished right there. Chemistry at West Philly High School was the same. I loved the demonstrations when the teacher made things explode, and my friend, Myron Mintz, using laboratory equipment (beakers, burners and condensation tubes) built a still in his basement where we home brewed vodka from potato peelings.
I hated tenth grade, felt like a misfit, discovered that I had quite a knack for playing pinball, and made the greatest, most enchanting discovery of all: I could skip almost all of the tenth grade. I could play hooky frequently, skip school for a day or two at a time, forge my father’s signature on an absence excuse note and, except for an “F” in French, never got caught! What was so enchanting was that I rode the trolley from the school to downtown, arriving just as the magic shops were opening for business.
I Become The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
|Bowman the Magician (1955)|
Magic was magical. The magicians who worked there were excellent demonstrators are what make customer buy the tricks, to learn how it’s done. Harry Reed (“The Great Hareedo”), at Ben’s Magic Shop, and Bill Cordray at Chanin’s Magic down the street, sort of took me in, gave me asylum, paid me (in always dry cash) for cleaning up the stock rooms (another form of hauling ashes) and taught me the secrets of magic & illusions. They also taught me the importance of having a stage name. A age 14, I was inducted into the Junior Yogi Club of Philadelphia and I became “Bowman the Magician”, the precursor to Joyologist, and Cheerman-of-the-Bored.
I Love School
|High School yearbook (1958). The pattern is set.|
By eleventh grade somebody flipped a switch. I cannot explain why, but now I loved school and went every day. I still missed the Magic Shops but visited my friends there only on Saturdays. I became president of the high school French Club and created its newsletter, which my first guardian-angel teacher, Janet Swerdlow, helped me name “Le Blageur”, French for “The Joker”! Are you starting to see a pattern here?
Early Humor Influences
When an infant laughs in its crib, we don’t say, “Gee, that kid’s got a great sense of humor!” The ability to laugh and smile is inborn, but a sense of humor is something you develop.
This list is impossible to make complete, and many are lost to memory, but here are some that I remember that amazed me, amused me, thrilled and inspired me. As usual, they are in no particular order. Abbott & Costello, Gene Shepherd, Morey Amsterdam, “The Life of Riley”, New Yorker, MAD Comics, Roger Price, Ernie Kovacs, Max Shulman, Blackstone, Clarence Day, Will Cuppy, Ogden Nash, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly, “Can You Top This?”, Howdy Doody, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Donald Duck, Little Lulu, Popeye, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Red Buttons, Bob and Ray, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Martha Raye, Red Skelton, Steve Allen, “Your Show of Shows”, Jack Paar, Jerry Lester, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, my bunk-mates at Camp Kahagon in 1952, and my dad’s Pinochle pals.
Back to Jobs and Careers
“I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” Thomas Edison is supposed to have said that. All fun? Really? All?
For the next two years, my after-school job was as the shipping clerk (actually, I was the entire department) for my uncle Irving’s clock-watch-and-electric shaver repair shop. He learned the trade in the Navy during WWII, and had built a thriving business. I punched the time clock, worked a few hours every day, wrapped and labeled every package, and wearing a smartly stylish work apron (a symbol of my status), wheeled the packages on a hand cart to the post office. This was a higher form of hauling ashes; there was an actual bi-weekly paycheck.
Throughout my undergraduate years at Temple University, my brother-in-law, Bernie Torner, gave me a job with a very cool place to hang out. “Electronic Servicenter” (not exactly a stage name, but at least a play on words) sold fine, often imported, “Hi-Fi” audio equipment for custom installation to upper-crust Philadelphians; several customers were musicians n the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stereo was just coming into fashion. The place was just a few blocks from my now downtown classy Philadelphia apartment. Okay, I stilled lived with my parents, but Park Towne Place was a fabulous address, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway just one block from the Museum of Art. I learned about and helped sell amplifiers, tuners, turntables, and speakers. My uniform was now the tweed jacket and striped tie of an Ivy League B.M.O.C. (well, the University of Pennsylvania was a stone’s throw from here), and my paycheck was large enough to keep my car (a tiny Fiat sedan) running and allow me to take girls on nice dates. I was hauling ashes but at a much higher level.
|1957 Fiat 500|
Fast Forward (see if you can spot the stage names as I move from job to job)
A series of jobs followed. Occupationally, I was at sea. my career path became a zig-zag wake behind me. Here’s a quick resume; hang on tight. Human Resources intern in the Personnel Research Department of Sun Oil Company (Phila.); human resource intern with the Ohio Highway Patrol; psychology assistant conducting employment testing for an industrial consulting firm (Phila.); psychologist/director of treatment services at the Ohio Reformatory for Women; the Weeks School in Vermont (delinquent and emotionally disturbed kids); the Connecticut Women’s Prison; director of the Nicholas Youth Center (back to Ohio); educational consultant with the Ohio Department of Mental Health; director of Help On Weekends (the H.O.W. adolescent drug treatment program) at Cincinnati Jewish Hospital Department of Psychiatry; Chairman of Mental Health Technology at Columbus Technical Institute, which is now Columbus State Community College; founder of Ohio Professional Counseling Services, large group private practice for counseling and psychotherapy in Columbus, Ohio; created PHOTO-LAFFs, a carnival-type business; professional speaker, author and founder DPJ Enterprise (Don’t Postpone Joy), then Steve Wilson & Co.; founder of World Laughter Tour; Director of National Humor Month.
Peripatetic Career Counseling Eventually Led Me to This
In no particular order, here are some of the most important ideas that I picked up along the way. These are the advice and directives that most likely have brought me through the jobs I’ve worked at and the career I now enjoy.
- You have to have stick-to-it-ive-ness!
- If a man has only two pennies, with one penny he should buy bread and with the other penny he should buy flowers because the soul needs nourishment.
- Making a living is not as important as making a life.
- You can’t always do what you want to do, but you can almost always stop doing what you don’t want to do.
- In every job to be done, there’s an element of fun.” ~Mary Poppins
- If it isn’t fun, I don’t want to do it.
- Permission granted to be unconventional; a mandate for making progress; and, mandatory for my happiness, too, but not everyone is suited for it.
- If you want to be good at marketing and advertising, take all the psychology courses you can.
- I’m tired of working for a**holes, idiots and jerks.
- I want to make and learn from my own mistakes; I’ll take the blame and I’ll take the credit.
- Being your own boss means you get to choose any eighty hours a week you want to work.
- Being your own boss means working half time; you get to choose noon-to-midnight or midnight-to noon.
- Don’t cheat. Charge a fair price. Strive for a right livelihood.
- I’m not the hat I wear or the title of the position I fill right now; I am first, last and always a human being.
- No risk, no reward.
- No matter what other assests you might possess, you have to have a little bit of luck, too.
- “Do you know what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted? He lived happily ever after.” ~Willie Wonka
- I have certain essential qualities and talents that can never be lost or taken away from me; these are the tools that enable the Phoenix to rise from the ashes.
Look, mom! Look, dad! Can you see me now? Thanks for the gifts you gave me. What I’ve stuck to is being me, and it worked out well. I hope I’ve made you proud.